Author Interview With Melissa Owens of Melissa's Bookshelf

Blogger's pen

Melissa: Hi Rosemary & Larry! I'm so excited to be a part of your book blog tour! I really enjoyed Boston Scream Pie--it was the first of your Paco & Molly books that I had read. I have a handful of questions for you:

Melissa: When did you decide to try your hand at writing together?

Rosemary: When I met Larry twenty-two years ago, I had no idea how to write fiction. Here I was, divorced for eight years, out on a blind date. As he was driving me home, he announced: "When I retire, I'm going to write a novel and I want you to help me."

Now . . . I was a career editor and journalist, I'd never written a word of fiction and neither had he. He was an electrical engineer. And I had only known this man for four hours! So I chirped, "Okay!"

We married the following year, but it was seven years later that we started writing together. Larry retired and, with his typical gusto, wrote the first draft of the novel he'd dreamed about. It's a suspense/thriller set in Hawaii called Cry 'Ohana. ('Ohana meaning "family"). Then he handed me his 450-page manuscript and said, (Okay, your turn.)

Yikes! It was truly the halt leading the blind. This is the book on which we cut our fiction teeth. We've subjected it to two critique groups, three different titles, and umpteen drafts. It's been kicking around so long that now we're on the brink of self-publishing it. (We spend our winters in Hawaii, so it's loaded with local color and cultures, and we have a ready market there--we hope.)

Larry: I'd been writing non-fiction (Technical proposals and manuals) for my entire career, but I've always felt something was missing. It was like I was trying to "break out and write free" in the world of fiction. At last I got my chance when we retired, but we found fiction was a whole 'nother thing. Rosemary told you how I got her involved. Anyway, a few creative writing courses at Johns Hopkins University and mystery writing courses at Anne Arundel Community College planted us into the mystery genre. Rather than a moment or an event, we'd like to think it's a seed that's grown ever since.

Melissa: What is it like for the two of you to collaborate on a book? Do you have specific roles in the writing process?

Rosemary: Do we ever! If it weren't for Larry, I wouldn't write fiction at all. I just don't have a fertile enough story-spinning imagination. He conjures up our plots and writes the first draft. Then we get to the nitty gritty, or "down and wordy," as Larry puts it. His prose is elegant and sometimes rather academic, because he has a quite scholarly mind, as well as a gift for invention. So when I tackle his first draft, I sometimes feel like Winnie-the-Pooh: "I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me." Then I settle in, breathing life into the characters, adding scenes and atmosphere. Or I throw a new trait in a character. And that can have consequences: like derailing the plot line. So I have to watch out.

Larry: Writing with Rosemary is like the old story of the Tortoise and the Hare--we write at different rates. I won't say who's who, but it follows that we are often working on different projects at the same time. Rosemary also has a habit (with good reason sometimes) to rename the first draft characters. So when she interrupts me to ask a question about Chester, I sometimes have to reply, Who's he? The toughest thing we had to learn is how to write with a single seamless voice.

Melissa: How has the writing process changed for you both now that you have released three books in the Paco & Molly series?

Rosemary: I've learned to be a little more diplomatic, rather than a battering ram. Instead of blurting out my objections dogmatically, I just re-work a chapter and let the dust settle. Larry no longer throws temper tantrums. Somehow we "negotiate" and end up compromising--and we haven't killed each other yet!

Larry: Where would mystery fiction be without conflict and controversy? The trick is that we keep it out of our marriage.

Melissa: Molly is such a vivid, not to mention highly amusing, character. Is she based on anyone that you know?

Rosemary: Oh, yes. The real Molly was my psychoanalyst father's housekeeper/gourmet cook. My father kept a secret list of all her clever sayings, which we call "Mollyprops." She was a born snoop, who knew the secrets of every family member and friend. Her snooping skills prove to be of great help to Paco. In Locks and Cream Cheese (our first Paco and Molly), she over-waters all the plants (leaving white rings) and overfeeds Dr. Avi Kepple's golden retriever, who lunches on filet mignon and scalloped potatoes. All of this is true to the real-life Molly. Both she and my father have passed away, but we're delighted to have immortalized them both.

Melissa: I am going to try to ask this in a way that won't give too much away about the story. Did you have to do much research on twins and their subconscious connections for that particular plot line in Boston Scream Pie?

Rosemary: Larry drew from historical novels he'd read. We did some twins research, not a huge amount. We did a little more on the medical aspects: we consulted a friend who is both a nurse and a twin, and learned some stuff about poisons.

Larry: I am also nuts about Gilbert and Sullivan operettas where themes of misplaced twins abound. I think we just took the concept one step further.

Melissa: Do you have any more Paco & Molly cozy mysteries in the works?

Rosemary: Not novels. But potential short stories, yes. Every once in awhile one of us comes up with a new "Mollyprop." We're storing them away for future use.

Larry: There's a built-in problem writing about older protagonists--Paco and Molly tend to age on you right beneath your nose. In keeping with real life, we let that happen. We do have a new set of sleuths for our Dan and Rivka Sherman murder mysteries. The first is Death Goes Postal which still needs some finishing touches. Rosemary's right-- mollyprops are too good to waste, so they'll appear in some future short story.

Melissa: And just for fun, who are some your favorite authors? Any that serve as your inspiration in your writing?

Rosemary: I just re-read Anna Karenina--this time as an author. I flew through it for a class many years ago and didn't appreciate it. Tolstoy's characters have so much depth and such vivid physical descriptions that you feel you truly know them. He can also be sly in his portrait of Anna's husband, who is so full of himself, and in the descriptions of people who are parasites of society. Another aspect Tolstoy excels in his detailed recounting (sometimes exhausting the reader) of a particular segment of society. As Levin runs his vast farm, we pitch hay with a scythe, sweat with the peasants. As Vronsky, Anna's lover, rides in a dangerous steeplechase, we're holding our breath. Tolstoy also writes a riveting plot and knows how to pace his story (with two main plot lines), building suspense every chapter.

A few other books I admire: Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson); the novels of Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities, I Am Charlotte Simmons, A Man in Full); A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler); A Separate Peace (John Knowles); The Pearl (John Steinbeck); Life of Pi (Yann Martel); "Brokeback Mountain" in Annie Proulx's collection Close Range; Original Sin (P.D. James); The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields); A Dog About Town (J. Englert).

Larry: For my two cents worth I have to mention my all time favorite, Ken Follett. His two historical novels set in 12th and 14th Century England, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are magnificent. Plots, characters, descriptions, adventure, excitement, and an education are all rolled into four covers. Next, I love the way Leon Uris (Haj, QB VII, & Trinity) deals with cultural clash. There's Robert Ruark (Poor No More & Uhuru) and Wilbur Smith (When the Lions Feed & The Sound of Thunder) on Africa. James Clavell (Shogun, Tai Pan, & Noble House) is my choice for Asian tales. I like the more challenging mystery writers like Agatha Christe, Elizabeth George, & P.D. James. Just for fun and excitement throw in Clive Cussler, Brad Meltzer, David Baldacci, and Nelson Demille and you'll know a few more of my reading buddies.

Melissa: Thank you again for participating in the interview. I'm looking forward to learning more about you both! Kind regards, Melissa Owens.